January 08, 2004

A short sharp slap for Dennis Overbye

I'd like to take a minute of Language Log time to slap Dennis Overbye real hard upside the head, if that's all right.

But first, a cordial word to the many good friends of mine who sent me the opening paragraphs of Dennis's article "Falling Physics, When the Weather Outside is Frightful", which appeared in the Science Times section of the New York Times (12/23/03, p. D3) and which Bill Poser recently commented on, all thinking I would be delighted with it: stop sending me this article, you idiots. All of you. Stop it.

And now to Dennis. Those who disapprove of violent punishment may choose not to watch this.

Dennis, your article about the physics of snowflakes begins with some boring crap about weather that turns one more time to the tired old nonsense about the Eskimos and their legendary snow vocabulary, only this time it's about New Yorkers, and all their snow words are unprintable, ha ha hee hee; oh, stop it, Dennis, I am laughing so-o-o uncontrollably (not!).

But it's worse than that. Your limp and worthless joke about having many words for snow that are all obscene expletives turns out not even to be original. A correspondent points out to me that this passage appears in Terry Pratchett's 6th Discworld novel, Wyrd Sisters:

The idea that Winter could actually be enjoyable would never have occurred to Ramtop people, who had eighteen different words for snow. All of them, unfortunately, unprintable.

So you didn't even make it up, Dennis. Whether you knew it or not, the stupid boring introductory paragraph that so many of my dear friends misguidedly mailed to me wasn't even original in concept.

And as for the original Eskimo version to which it obliquely alludes, this drivel about many words for snow has appeared in the Times so many times before. It was in an editorial on February 9, 1984 (Laura Martin pointed out that its claims were exaggerated in American Anthropologist in 1986, but nobody listened). Jane E. Brody used it on February 9, 1988 (I wrote to point out to her how silly this was but she paid no attention). It turned up in the Magazine on August 18, 1991 (mathematics professor Jim Lepowsky wrote to protest on August 19). My book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax came out that year, with its title essay publicizing Laura Martin's work, but Jane Brody didn't read it; she used the old chestnut yet again on March 23, 1993 (and the patient Jim Lepowsky wrote in to complain again on March 24)... But no one listens. The unstoppable flood of snow-word blather blunders brainlessly on.

Dennis, I want to make a suggestion to you about your use of hackneyed phrases in kit form to launch articles, and it's this: get a life. Think up some novel stuff. Don't be an indolent hack, use your left brain. Don't just make trips up the well-worn staircase to the attic full of dusty phrasal bric-a-brac that journalists keep returning to time after time after time.

Thwack! I hope that hurt.

That's it. I'm done. You can get up now. I'm off to the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in frigid Boston. You should come too. Get some serious ideas about language. Next Tuesday I'll buy the Times for the Science Times section, and I'll look to see if there's anything by you. Don't let me see any crap about snow.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 8, 2004 12:10 AM